Sunday, 31 May 2015

Dave Malloy's PRELUDES at LCT3

     I must say that I hated this show at first, but it slowly one me over, not to love, but to a respect for what it was doing. The primary conceit is based on historical fact. The Russian composer and pianist Serge Rachmaninoff went into a three year period of writer's block after the disastrous premiere of his first symphony. Eventually he turned to a hypnotherapist, Nicolai Dahl, and regained confidence in his creative abilities. The first result was his second piano concerto, dedicated to Dahl. PRELUDES isn't a conventional historical play, though based on historical fact; nor is it a conventional musical, though it is filled with music, most of it Rachmaninoff's or Malloy's original numbers (few are conventional songs) based loosely on the composer's work. The set is a hodgepodge of past and present furniture and artifacts (a modern kitchen stands at stage right) that mirror's the show's style. The characters sometimes seem historical, sometimes contemporary in their language and acting style. Occasionally, a character will grab a microphone and move into a contemporary musical style -- a convention obviously influenced by the musical, SPRING AWAKENING. Dahl is played by an African-American woman (Eisa Davis), as is Rachmaninoff's wife (Nikki M. James). For some reason, the great Russian bass Fyodor Chaliapin is a regular presence (great performance by Joseph Keckler). Chris Sarandon plays a number of older parts including Leo Tolstoy, with whom Rachmaninoff had a disastrous meeting during his dark years. The always winning Gabriel Ebert plays Rachmaninoff. If only he could sing! However, during the performance I contemplated how out of touch I am with much contemporary musical theatre and performance. Good, trained voices are important to me, but they aren't important to a young audience. The unconventional style of some of Malloy's music doesn't move me, but I could say the same thing of the music of IOWA and ONCE. It's partly my problem. Yet the second half of PRELUDES has some truly beautiful ballads.
     Special mention has to be made of the performance of pianist-muical director-performer Or Matias who plays Rachmaninoff's creative alter-ego. Matias is center stage throughout at a baby grand piano set on a revolve. He plays constantly (without music) many of Rachmaninoff's pieces and accompanies the performers (along with two synthesizer players). He also has to act and sing. He's the real star of the show.
     As I said, PRELUDES won me over. I'm tempted to go again. It's unconventional, but fascinating.
PRELUDES. LCT 3 at the Claire Tow Theatre. May 27, 2015.

Rajiv Joseph's GUARDS AT THE TAJ at the Atlantic Theater Company

     In this long (2 hours) one-act play, two men are guards at the Taj Mahal on the day it opens in 1648 (it actually was completed in 1653. In the play the Emperor who ordered the design and building of the magnificent tomb for his favorite wife wanted to ensure that nothing as beautiful would ever be constructed again. To accomplish this, he ordered that the hands of the 20,000 workmen who built the Taj Mahal, were to be cut off. Our two characters have been ordered to perform this mass dismemberment. We seem them cleaning up the bloody chamber where the dismemberments took place. For Bubar, the more sensitive of the guards (Arian Moayed), this is not only a brutal act, but an attempt to kill the creation of beauty. Has anyone the right to decree that beauty will never be created again? His fellow guard Humayun (Omar Metwally) is a more conventional man who believes first and foremost in following orders. The men turn from friends to enemies with awful consequences.
     We certainly see enough evidence around us of brutal regimes destroying man-made beauty -- the Taliban and ISIS, for instance -- and treating ordinary people with contempt and violence. The points Joseph seems to be making in GUARDS AT THE TAJ seem rather simple and obvious for a two hour play. There's a lot of realistic physical detail -- a stage literally awash in blood for part of the play, but the play moves into more poetic realm at the end as we move more into the imagination of one of the characters.
        Amy Morton has staged the play effectively. I saw an early preview and am sure the rhythm will tighten before the formal opening. The two actors are excellent. I can't say that the play moved me.
GUARDS AT THE TAJ. Atlantic Theater Company at the Linda Gross Theatre. May 26, 2015.

Monday, 25 May 2015

Fiasco Theater's production of Shakespeare's TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA

     The number of productions of Shakespeare and other Elizabethan dramatists has dwindled in recent years, even by supposed Shakespeare festivals in New York, New Jersey and elsewhere. One reason is that Shakespeare, if done traditionally, is expensive. It takes a lot of actors. Yet there is an audience for the Bard. Look at the sellout success on Broadway of productions of TWELFTH NIGHT and RICHARD III last season. Perhaps it's the attraction of British actors, even bad ones like Mark Rylance, but don't get me started on America's attraction to poor British actors like Rylance and Bill Nighy (a small bag of the same tics used over and over) or dull ones like those the Royal Shakespeare Company seems to hire these days. Often American actors do cleaner, better, more honest Shakespeare. One response to the expense of producing Shakespeare are small-scale, low budget productions like the current Fiasco Theater's TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA at the fine Polonsky Shakespeare Theatre in Brooklyn. Half a dozen actors playing multiple roles in simple, contemporary costumes on a bare stage framed by an appropriate, basic setting playing a somewhat cut text. In this case, the results were delightful.
      TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA is a light play, though one filled with verbal wit. The play takes intense listening. It's about friendship, betrayal, real love and love as possession and, like Shakespeare's last plays, it very much centers on mercy and forgiveness. The happy ending may seem unearned to people who expect psychological realism, but the quality of mercy is central to Shakespeare's comedies and we see mercy acted out at the end of the play leading to reconciliation in what could have ended tragically.  What I felt this production lost in some cases, was the kind of vocal range and dexterity I like to hear from classical actors. What one gained in this intimate space was commitment to character and situation, engagement with the text, and communication of a real love for the play and for theatrical "play." The actors talked on audience members before the play began and sat at the side of the playing area when they weren't "on." There was little attempt at old fashioned theatrical illusion, but rather something closer to the actor-audience relationship that was likely to exist in the Elizabethan theater, more strongly felt here than at the 2,000-plus seat Shakespeare's Globe in London. Derek McLane has created a lovely scenic background for the action. The backdrop is comprised of crumpled love letters, appropriate for this play in which rejected love letters play a crucial role. Most of the costumes were light colored (off white, beige,light blue of Sylvia, the leading female character) against the mostly white set. The lighting remained bright for most of the play.
     Fiasco's production has been a critical and audience success. It makes a strong case for a play that is seldom performed and which many academic critics dismiss.
TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA. Polonsky Shakespeare Theater. May 24, 2015.

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Neil Labute's THE WAY WE GET BY at Second Stage

     This was a shocker!! Neil Labute has written a nice play about fundamentally decent people! Neil Labute has written a romantic comedy! There's no gimmick, no dark con game. No one ends up betrayed or worse.
     We've seen the basics of THE WAY WE GET BY before. It's an example of the post-coital genre. The play begins after a couple has had sex and what the audience sees is the couple negotiating a relationship. Do they want the relationship to continue past this sexual episode? Do they know and like each other enough to gamble on love? Most important, do they trust each other? It's typical of Labute's work that we slowly find out more about the couple and their previous relationship. There is a surprising revelation--there always is in a Labute play--but it isn't an awful one. "The way we get by," according to this couple, is the easy way. Do they have the strength to try the more difficult way? This is a slight play, but a charming one.
     What makes it special are the performances of the leading actors. I'm a big fan of Thomas Sadoski and he's excellent as the somewhat nerdy, not always articulate man. This is a guy who is not used to taking charge, but who finally does so in  surprising burst of eloquence. Sadoski is great at physicalizing every emotion without being the least bit corny. His character can't help revealing every feeling through body language rather than words. I wanted to see THE WAY WE GET BY because Tatiana Maslany of ORPHAN BLACK fame was scheduled to play the woman. Maslany ad to withdraw because of her filming schedule. I had never heard of her replacement, Amanda Seyfried, but she was totally convincing. She's not as good an actor as Sadoski, who's one of the best, but she holds her own. Leigh Silverman has staged and paced the play effectively on Neil Patel's appropriately anonymous set.
      Thoroughly enjoyable.
THE WAY WE GET BY. Second Stage Theatre. May 16, 2015.

Anne Hathaway in George Brant's GROUNDED directed by Julie Taymor at the Public Theatre

     I'm afraid I was fighting dozing off during this one.
     The play is basically an idea for a Lifetime Television Movie turned into a 90 minute monologue. "The Pilot" is a dedicated fighter pilot who likes nothing more that flying in "The Blue" and setting off her sidewinder missiles. When she goes home for R&R, she has a three day fling with a young man who works in his father's hardware store and is turned on by the sight of her in uniform. When she returns to work she discovers that she is pregnant. The young man, who seems too good to be true, weeps for joy. They get married and she is reassigned to sitting in a van in the Nevada desert operating drones that are flying over the Middle East. She adores her husband and daughter, but finds the work so tedious that it wears her down. When she is given the kill order to send a missile from a drone toward the number two man in Al Quaeda, she sees that he is holding his young daughter as the missile comes toward him. She is devastated by killing an innocent child who is her daughter's age. The play offers a rather sentimental view of geopolitics, to put it mildly, and "The Pilot" isn't a very interesting character to hold an audience for ninety minutes.
     Anne Hathaway has chosen to give "The Pilot" the kind of flat intonation one often hears when female military officers speak on radio or television. I'd like to thinks this was a choice rather than Hathaway's own limitations as an actress. However hard she tries to give the part physicality, one is left with a monotonous sound for a long monologue. Julie Taymor is basically a decorative rather than an interpretive director. She can give a show a look and effects, but she's not good at giving a show a mind or a heart. She's given GROUNDED a lot of nice and a fair number of computer effects and falling sand, but I would rather have had an actress on a bare stage who really brought the play to life. That would have taken a different director and a livelier script.
GROUNDED. Public Theatre. May 16, 2015.  

Saturday, 16 May 2015

Jesse Eisenberg's THE SPOILS presented by The New Group at the SIgnature Theatre

     Jesse Eisenberg is a Woody Allen for the 21st century. He stars in movies, writes plays, writes for The New Yorker and publishes fiction (a new volume will be out soon). Becoming a film auteur is probably next on his agenda. Eisenberg's work is darker, more disturbing than Allen's. His persona in his recent plays is a twenty-something Jewish slacker. In THE SPOILS, this slacker isn't the amiable stoner of movies. He's a nasty piece of work. THE SPOILS starts in sitcom territory--particularly evident since the first person we see, in a conversation with his girlfriend in a set that places us in sitcom land (an apartment living room), is BIG BANG THEORY star Kunal Nayyar, having a sitcom-style conversation with his girlfriend (Annapurna Sriram). Nayyar's character Kalyan, a Nepalese MBA student, is telling Reshma, an Indian-American medical intern, that he loves her because she pretends to like football. Everything seems comfortable and cute until Ben (Eisenberg), Kalyan's roommate, enters. Actually Ben's father pays for the apartment and Ben refuses to accept rent money from Kalyan. Eisenberg is a very physical actor and his Ben is like an agent of chaos. He can't sit still for for than a moment before he is stalking his territory. He doesn't so much sit as hurl his slight frame onto furniture. He talks a mile a minute. He is hostile to Reshma and possessive, almost seductive with Kalyan, his only friend, whom he treats with a physical intimacy that borders on gay, but really is the physical affection one offers a pet. Ben claims to be a film auteur, but doesn't seem to have made anything. How can someone who is empty inside create anything? His primary occupation seems to be smoking dope. We're still in sitcom territory here, but with a disturbing undercurrent.
     On this day, Ben is upset because he has discovered that Sarah, a girl he had a crush on when he was eight is getting married to another elementary school acquaintance, Ted, a stockbroker.  Ben tells Kalyan a bizarre scatological dream he had about the girl when they were eight. The audience laughs out of shock -- it's a real gross out dream -- but the dream is the closest thing to a true erotic-romantic experience Ben has had and he becomes fixated on it and the notion of winning Sarah back. In the process, Ben becomes more of a destructive force, though most of the people around him try to remain kind and sympathetic to him.
        Drama and serious television are full of fascinating scoundrels--think HOUSE OF CARDS, MAD MEN or BREAKING BAD or Shakespeare's RICHARD III or MACBETH. Francis Underwood and Don Draper are interesting because they can make people love them as well as hate them. Unfortunately, Ben is never really likeable. In contemporary parlance, he has no boundaries. Kalyan stays loyal almost to the end because Kalyan is an extremely nice person who is programmed to be loyal. The audience's laughter is more out of shock and discomfort than amusement. So we watch an obnoxious character become increasingly obnoxious, even pathological. The four characters who have to suffer his insults and bizarre behavior tend to engage in uninteresting banter. Perhaps we are to see Ben's acting out as at least more interesting than the conversation of his companions, but at least they are basically decent people who have have careers and aspirations and want to connect meaningfully to others.
       The cast plays all this naturalistically--no sitcom exaggeration here. I saw an early preview, but the sense of ensemble was strong. Eisenberg has the ability to seem to be improvising even in scripted drama (of course, scripted by him). Kunal Nayyar shows more range than he see from him on television but equally as much charm. Michael Zegen is sweet and funny as the nice doofus Ted. Erin Darke is both sweet and strong as Sarah and Annapurna Sriram captures Reshma's toughness and her vivacity. Scott Elliott has paced the production masterfully.
     I saw an early preview and thought the script needed some editing, which is hard for the playwright to do when he is onstage the entire time and not out watching. Characters describe their feelings too much. Reshma doesn't have to tell Kalyan, for the audience's benefit, that he's a nice guy. We can see that. Nor does she have to tell Ben she can't stand him. We certainly see that without her saying a word. The end needs to be sharpened a bit.
     It's a pleasure to see such good acting. I'm not sure I can say that it's a pleasure to spend two hours watching Ben misbehave. The dream that obsesses him shows that he's a guy who gets off on people shitting on him, metaphorically if not literally (perhaps literally as well), and he does all he can to provoke them to do so. It's a courageous, uncompromising portrait, but I have a feeling that I was not alone in controlling my urge to scream to Ben's housemate and guests, "Run for your lives!"
THE SPOILS by Jesse Eisenberg. The New Group at the Signature Theatre Center. May 15, 2015.  

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

CAROUSEL at the Lyric Opera of Chicago

      What happens to directors when they are assigned CAROUSEL. The last major revival in London and New York began brilliantly with a superb staging of the "Carousel Waltz," the long instrumental prologue. We first saw a giant clock, then Julie and Carrie, the two leading female characters, at work at the mill. When the clock registered closing time, the mill disappeared and magically we were at the carnival and the carousel was created before our eyes. It was theater magic and nothing in the rest of the production matched it except the choreography of the great Kenneth Macmillan--his last work. CAROUsEL is a big sing, more operetta in vocal demands than musical comedy and none of the leads, particularly Michael Hayden, the Billy Bigelow, was up to the vocal demands of the score. When the production came to New York, all the kudos went to the two people in the cast who could sing the score, Audra McDonald, the Carrie Pipperidge and Shirley Verrett, who played Nettie Fowler. Without singers, CAROUSEL falls flat.
      It has been two decades since that production, so Rob Ashford's production for the Lyric Opera of Chicago was eagerly awaited. Although Ashford's forte is supposedly a director/choreographer of musicals, I have been much more impressed with his direction of Tennessee Williams plays for the Donmar Warehouse in London. I thought his recent revival of HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING turned a clever satire into a raucous cartoon. His staging of CAROUSEL was a middle from the start. The prologue was a muddle of styles with too much going on. The choreography involved a lot of rolling around on the floor. My only thought was that he must of had minimal rehearsal time. The chorus lined up as if they were doing AIDA. The sets by Italian artist Paolo Ventura were stark, but not unattractive. The setting was updated to the depression era, so the costumes by Catherine Zuber were drab. That's OK, I guess. All in all, it looked like an opera company doing a musical.
     Luckily the cast, who seemed to be left to their own devices, couldn't be better. Ashford put the focus on Billy Bigelow, the feckless carousel barker, from the outset (Hytner put the focus on the women), and Stephen Pasquale delivered a vocally and dramatically brilliant performance. Pasquale didn't try to make Billy a nice guy. He was sexy, but definitely rough trade. with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth and a sense of potential violence. This was a Stanley Kowalski who somehow found his way into a musical. I've never heard Billy's role better sung and the roaring ovation after his "Soliloquy" was well deserved. Laura Osnes could have captured more of Julie's feistiness and her sexuality. After all, she's willing to lose her job to be with Billy the night they meet. What Julie and Billy have is an enormous sexual attraction. This is what was missing from the Hytner production. A stronger director could have done more to emphasize it here. Jenn Gambatese and Matthew Hydzik were excellent as Carrie Pipperidge and Enoch Snow, funny but always convincing as characters. Jarrod Emick made Jigger more of a character than usual. Ex-Carmen Denyce Graves sang her two numbers well, but seemed stiff, which Nettie Fowler definitely isn't. Graves couldn't forget that she was in an opera house. The chorus sounded good, but the key to a work like this is to make each chorus member a distinct character. This was simply a chorus. David Chase, as always, provided solid leadership and the orchestra played that beautiful score (great orchestrations by Don Walker that are far better than the ones Robert Russell Bennet did for the other Rand H musicals).  If only this superb cast had a production worthy of them.
     There have been rumors of this production coming to Broadway. With the exception of Graves, the cast is ideal. Back to the drawing board with the production.